Us misses out on everything that made its predecessor such an engaging piece of jagged pop.
Me, the 2015 debut by Brooklyn-by-way-of-LA-based artist Lorely Rodriguez – otherwise known as Empress Of – was a lean album, but it was muscular. With the singer’s preternatural grasp of pop music combined with a flair for hard-hitting beats, she made Me a remarkably tight half-hour on her own. It was exactly the right kind of weird and hard-hitting pop record 2015 needed in the wake of Grimes and Purity Ring (pardon the trite comparison). When she announced her follow-up, Us, it was hard not to get excited about what she’d accomplish with a slew of talented co-producers, like Dev Hynes, DJDS (who assisted in a bulky portion of The Life of Pablo), Miguel Barros (also known as Pional) and Blood Orange-collaborator Cole M.G.N.
The disappointing thing is, for as interesting of a pop album as Me was, Us does little to distinguish itself from any other pop album in 2018. Where Me existed as a single woman’s vision, Us filters that through the minds of a collection of co-producers – which results in an album that struggles to be more than simply enjoyable. It’s an egregious case of “too many cooks,” and it makes you wonder who got in Rodriguez’s head and swayed her towards an album this safe. All of the inventive touches brought to the former are absent here, replaced by a series of good, but entirely predictable pop songs.
The sad thing is, it lulls you into a false sense of security with opener “Everything to Me,” the strongest track here, existing in service of the rich picture it paints: “Sitting on a stoop all afternoon/ In the pouring rain but we don’t move/ Clothes are sticking to my skin/ I’ll be sick all the weekend.” She’s singing about something simple: an afternoon spent coping with the weather with her lover, though the song never spells out who the “you” of “I’d rather be sitting next to you/ Drinking beer out of the bag” is. This is important, because while “Everything to Me” is clearly a love song, it’s one of a familiar love, right down to the mutual razzings: “I hate when you smoke cigarettes/ You hate when I mention it.”
And to its credit, the first half of the album is consistent. “Just the Same” is a light and bubbly love song with lyrics that oscillate between cute (“We learned all about each other, it took one day/ I know almost everything you love and hate”) to sexy (“Something about your body makes me feel so safe/ I want you on top of me like a paperweight”). That leads us into the airy, Spanglish-language “Trust Me Baby,” the sugary and horn-heavy “Love for Me” and the propulsive, dancefloor-ready “I Don’t Even Smoke Weed.” The problem is that none of these songs quite match up to what Rodriguez is capable of, both sonically and lyrically.
From here, things get a little spottier, and the lack of real, tangible creativity begins to wear thin. “When I’m With Him,” also a Spanglish track, is the weakest link here by far, a somewhat bland sugar rush that fails to really leave an impression past its less-memorable use of language.
Closer “Again” feels like a down note to end the album on in terms of energy, more committed to a limp Balearic beat comedown than a satisfying conclusion. There are still good moments – “All or Nothing” is a propulsive, high-drama track that harkens back to the moments of chaos in Me, but still only stands in the shadows of those songs.
At the end of the day, the biggest crime Us commits is that it’s merely good. But by dropping the ball on the promise of creative, intense, warped pop music made by Me, it is rendered not just dull, but disappointing. It’s possible that the less complex songs here could be a ploy for the far bigger stages Rodriguez deserves, but in playing it this safe, Us misses out on everything that made its predecessor such an engaging piece of jagged pop.